Eye-opening Job Statistics

(Editor’s note: A table of recent graduates’ wages, by major, appears below.) 

College degrees are not created equal. Would you buy your child just any old degree? A folk art and artisanry degree? A dance degree? A psychology degree?

Students might take more care in choosing and taxpayers might properly care what programs are offered at state universities if they had some idea of their value in the market.

Americans are told over and over that “college pays,” but on closer examination, that claim depends on a wide range of outcomes. Some kinds of college training lead to jobs that pay very well, but some lead to jobs that pay barely more than diligent work in fields requiring no college.

Several state governments are tracking and publishing earning and workforce participation. Virginia’s data, compiled by the State Higher Education Council of Virginia (SHCEV), tells us to a fair extent how well various degrees prepare students for work. It also tells how much graduates really make. 

With these data, we can learn how much graduates who took a particular course of study are making. For example, a drama graduate may find work as a hotel desk clerk: the Virginia data would average that person’s earnings with the earnings of all drama graduates. This is much more revealing than knowing that drama professionals working in theatre make X dollars per year; many trained in drama never break into the craft and have to work in unrelated fields.

The Virginia data show earnings within 18 months after graduation. Guidance counselors might tell students that aerospace engineers make $70,000, but that doesn’t mean that a person graduating will earn that immediately after getting a diploma. (Unlike Virginia, Bureau of Labor Statistics data average earnings for everyone in the field and thus represent a mid-career number, not an entry number.)

Virginia’s data have an important shortcoming. The state only tracks graduates who enroll in other institutions in the state or who work in the state. Since, for example, many aerospace jobs are in Washington, California, and Texas, graduates who went there would show up in the “no information” column. Data for degrees with many homegrown jobs, say in education, accounting, or nursing, would therefore be more meaningful than fields like aerospace engineering that draw many students out of Virginia. In spite of that limitation, cross-degree comparisons offer some insight.

Psychology is a very popular undergraduate field of study, but how much value is there in a four-year psychology degree? Colleges in Virginia minted 3,027 of them in 2008-09. Nationally, colleges produced about 100,000 psychology degrees. (We’re only considering four-year degrees in this article.) Thirty-four percent of Virginia graduates with this degree had full-time employment after graduation, and 13 percent had part-time employment. Eighteen percent went on to further education in a Virginia institution. No information was available for 35 percent. 

Earnings for those in full-time work were $27,211, or $13.61 per hour. We do not, however, know in what fields they were working; they could have been waiting tables, pouring concrete, designing websites, working in government, or grooming dogs.
At the other end of the scale is aerospace engineering, where recent graduates made $54,825, well above the median. Graduates numbered 652, of which 21 percent reported full-time earnings in-state, a comparatively low figure for Virginia graduates, offset by the fact that 18 percent went on to further education. But for 57f percent, no information was available.  As noted, this gaping hole is explained by the great number of these highly-skilled jobs that are to be found in other states. 

For students who took certain majors, average earnings are low. The lowest paying four-year degrees are: photography at $20,569, painting at $21,915, craft, folk art and artisanry at $22,258, drama and theatre arts at $22,636, dance at $22,696, fine arts at $23,117, kinesiology and exercise at $24,049. 

People with those degrees were earning only $10.28-$12.02 per hour. Moreover, students who earned degrees in those fields had low labor force participation, ranging from 21 percent to 44 percent.  Drama, dance, fine arts and kinesiology not only pay poorly, but few students with those degrees end up at work—any kind of full-time work—soon after graduation.
I know of young people with degrees in exercise science who work as desk clerks at our local health club for minimum wage, seduced into a low-reward educational path by the Hollywood glamour of muscles, tans and fitness.

If federal and state taxpayers had not paid (or allowed them to defer, through loans) the bulk of their costs, many students might have taken a more financially prudent course than the college degrees they chose.

At the high end of the scale, among the most rewarding degrees are:), systems engineer ($59,716), computer engineer ($55,590), and chemical engineer ($53,080).Students contemplating a college degree should be informed about these numbers, as should their parents and taxpayers. The most popular degree, psychology, has a below-median tendency to lead to work, and low pay. Psych may be fascinating to study, but what then?

Of course, there may be benefits to students that aren’t revealed in a strictly financial analysis, such as wisdom and aesthetic appreciation. But the often-made claim that students will enjoy a large earnings premium as a result of their college degrees is worth careful consideration. Clearly, that is often not the case. 

I spoke to a professor at our local land-grant college about the trouble with degrees that do not launch students into work or increase their pre-matriculation earnings much. He teaches in one of the programs where graduates’ earnings are comparatively good. He said, “It’s my observation that employers are looking for graduates who can do things.” He believes that educational paths should set up graduates with skills that are useful in the employment marketplace. Some do; some don’t.

The improved data we’re getting on actual outcomes for college graduates shower cold rain on the presumption of the financial prudence of each and every college endeavor. For most, students, investing in a photography degree won’t prove to be a smooth financial move. Same for a dance, drama, exercise, or psychology degree. College degrees are not created equal.